Nationals Face the Cardinals in the NLCS

By now, you know all about Game Five against the Dodgers. Trailing 3-1, Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto hit back-to-back solo home runs off Clayton Kershaw. Then in the 10th inning, Howie Kendrick hit a game-sealing grand slam off Joe Kelly.

Now the Nationals have a chance to upend another one of their postseason nemeses: the St. Louis Cardinals, who knocked off the rival Braves in a Game Five of their own — although a much less dramatic one.

Here’s what we know going into the series.

Starting Pitchers

The Cardinals have already made their initial rotation official. Dave Martinez has only announced his starters for Games One and Two, but in doing so, he made the rest of the rotation pretty clear.

Game One (Friday): Anibal Sanchez vs. Miles Mikolas

Game Two (Saturday): Max Scherzer vs. Adam Wainwright

Game Three (Monday): Stephen Strasburg vs. Jack Flaherty

Game Four (Tuesday): Patrick Corbin vs. Dakota Hudson

Going this route puts the Nationals’ first three starters (Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, and Stephen Strasburg) on standard rest. Patrick Corbin, however, wouldn’t get his turn until eight days after his most recent start. There is a chance that he and Strasburg are flipped in the rotation, but Corbin did pitch in the last three games of the NLDS (twice in relief) — plus Strasburg is held in higher regard and would be in line for a potential Game Seven start if he throws on Monday.

Aside from Wainwright, I don’t have a ton of intel on St. Louis’ rotation — although I know that it doesn’t wow me. So rather than trying to sound smart, I’ll give you their regular season statistics, followed by their most recent postseason start.

Mikolas: 9-14, 4.16 ERA (32 starts); 5 innings, 3 hits, 1 earned run, 2 walks, 2 strikeouts

Wainwright: 14-10, 4.19 ERA (31 starts); 7.2 innings, 4 hits, 0 earned runs, 2 walks, 8 strikeouts

Flaherty: 11-8, 2.75 ERA (33 starts); 6 innings, 4 hits, 1 earned run, 1 walk, 8 strikeouts

Hudson: 16-7, 3.35 ERA (33 games, 32 starts); 4.2 innings, 4 hits, 1 earned run, 2 walks, 2 strikeouts

Of note, the Cardinals’ only starter to exceed 180 innings during the regular season was Flaherty (196.1) — and it’s not as if they missed time due to injury. Compare that to Washington, for whom two starters (Strasburg and Corbin) topped 200 innings, and Scherzer would have as well if it wasn’t for his nagging injuries. That trio also ranked second through fourth in the NL in strikeouts, trailing only Jacob deGrom. All of that goes to say that Washington’s starters should have a greater impact than the St. Louis bunch.

Bullpen

To no surprise, St. Louis makes up for that gap with its bullpen, which features Andrew Miller, converted starter Carlos Martinez, and breakout star Giovanny Gallegos. No disrespect to Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson, but they can’t carry the entire load. Tanner Rainey could play a vital role in this series.

I can’t speak to what the Cardinals are thinking, but don’t be surprised to see some roster changes from Washington, particularly in the bullpen. Martinez has clearly lost faith in guys like Fernando Rodney, Hunter Strickland, and Wander Suero. I would be moderately surprised if all three of them returned to the NLCS roster. Austin Voth is already active, so look out for Joe Ross and/or Erick Fedde.

Hitters

Breaking down the Cardinals offensively is always difficult, and this season has been a prime example. No one in their lineup has truly rivaled Rendon or Soto (and probably not even Kendrick). In fact, their team leader’s OPS of .821 (Paul Goldschmidt) would also place behind Trea Turner in Washington. And yet, St. Louis always has a flair for the dramatic. With two outs and/or runners in scoring position, they always find a way to get that key base hit that eludes other teams, and they tend to heat up across the board in the postseason.

The two bats to look out for will undoubtedly be Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna. Rendon had a spectacular NLDS (.412 average with three doubles and a clutch home run), but both St. Louis sluggers outproduced him, hitting .429 apiece with power numbers to boot — albeit against worse pitching (and mostly inexperienced starters in the postseason) than the Nationals or Dodgers boast. The team as a whole is also coming off a 13-run outburst in its last game, but there should be a clear formula: much like the heart of the Dodgers’ order, if the Nationals can avoid making mistakes against Goldschmidt and Ozuna, they’ll have a great chance to advance.

These two teams tied for the NL lead in stolen bases, but this area has a chance to be one-sided in this series. The Cardinals have the ultimate neutralizer (Yadier Molina) behind the plate, while the Nationals will be trotting out a duo of Kurt Suzuki (who allowed a 90 percent success rate for base stealers) and Yan Gomes (who surrendered nearly twice as many steals as Molina in over 150 fewer innings) behind the dish.

Lineups

Since I’ve done this regularly, here’s my crack at each team’s batting order — there’s no real reason to make a change between games.

Cardinals: CF Dexter Fowler, 2B Kolten Wong, 1B Paul Goldschmidt, LF Marcell Ozuna, C Yadier Molina, 3B Matt Carpenter, RF Tommy Edman, SS Paul DeJong, pitcher

Nationals: SS Trea Turner, RF Adam Eaton, 3B Anthony Rendon, LF Juan Soto, 2B Howie Kendrick, 1B Ryan Zimmerman, C Kurt Suzuki, CF Michael A. Taylor, pitcher

Outfielders Harrison Bader (pinch runner/defense) and Jose Martinez (top pinch hitter) will also play significant roles over the course of this series. Truthfully, the rest of the bench is pretty light.

As for the Nationals, Asdrubal Cabrera and Brian Dozier should remain the go-to players off the bench. A defensive substitution at second base is always a strong possibility, and Dozier is one of the team’s quicker players — after Victor Robles, but he hasn’t been cleared to play yet (hamstring). Gomes won’t factor into the equation until Corbin pitches.

There’s a slim chance that Wilmer Difo or Andrew Stevenson will be elevated to the roster, but the position player unit will likely remain the same. The only exception would appear to be if Robles won’t be ready to play at any point in this series. To be clear, I’d expect Michael A. Taylor to start early in the series whether Robles is healthy enough or not.

First pitch of Game One in St. Louis is scheduled for 8:08 p.m. ET (7:08 p.m. CT), and Game Two will start four hours earlier on Saturday.

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